Bleeding for Science and Democracy: Thinking about Climate Change in the Emergency room

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | April 22, 2013, 11:00 am EDT
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While on my way to a climate change conference at the University of Notre Dame earlier this month I managed to slam my hand in my car door.  So my first evening in South Bend was spent in the Memorial Hospital Emergency Room with ample time to think about my presentation on climate science and the personal attacks on climate scientists that have become all too frequent, and how to respond to those attacks using resources such as the UCS manual “Science in the Age of Scrutiny”. But that night in the emergency room I realized that there are some parallels between slamming your hand in a car door and the science of climate change and its consequences.

Bandaged finger after an encounter with the car door. Photo:

To wit:

  • There are some basic principles of science that apply regardless of how much you might wish the result to be different. If a car door closes on your hand, the flesh and bone of the hand will give, but not the car door. And, if you add a lot of CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane to the atmosphere, they will retain more heat and average global temperature will rise.
  • Textbooks and the principles above may give you a good sense of the result, but observation is still important. My anatomy textbooks in college showed that there are a lot of nerve endings in your fingers. My observation that day is that the textbooks are right, and this was evident from both the feeling in my hand, as well as some of the words that I used when the door closed that are strong indicators of the sensation in my hand (Nota Bene: I was attending a conference at a Catholic school and admit that some of my expressions were not in accordance with the teachings of the Church). Similarly, there is a clear and unequivocal record of increases in the earth’s temperature related to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There are also a set of well studied indicators of past climate that show how recent warming relates to our climate history over the past 10,000 years.
  • Sometimes it is useful to trust the experts. My first reaction was that, while my hand hurt, it would go away and there was no need to do anything but put a BandAid on it and take a painkiller. But the excellent emergency room doctor at Memorial put in two sets of stitches, rebuild the nail and added a splint on the broken finger tip,  plus antibiotics and other meds, while telling me somewhat laconically that I had done a fair bit of damage and needed to watch for infection. And, while we may hope the effects of a warming climate will just all be ok, there are a very large number of scientists in many fields of study (including me I must say) all over the country and the world who tell us there has been a fair bit of damage and we need to take care to directly address the ongoing effects of global warming.

Well in the event the conference was both enjoyable and informative. For me, the take home messages came out of the full day on ethics, social justice and the common good. Speakers, by and large theological scholars, talked about the moral imperatives in church teachings that relate to the impacts of climate change on society. While that isn’t the frame of reference for climate science, it is vital in our democratic society to think about the common good and social justice – with or without slamming your hand in a car door.

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